mcvay

Chris McVay, CSA Director

Communication Skills and Arts (CSA)

The first priority of DPAS is our students, so the primary mission of CSA, which oversees the College Writing courses taught in this department, is to provide the tools necessary to help all students "play the academic game" successfully and stay in school until graduation, while underscoring the validity of and pride in the black experience and culture. While the DPAS Writing Program was originally established in 1973 in collaboration with the English Department in order to serve the needs of underrepresented students (which conventional writing courses certainly were not doing at that time), it is equally true that our sections have always been available to all students across campus and that attendance by students not of African descent has been consistent over the years. Thus, while we are clearly addressing the needs of the students in the target population (not all of whom choose to take the College Writing requirements here), our program has also been effective in assisting all students who may be interested in the issues we present and who benefit from our manner of presentation. There are various reasons students not of African descent may choose to take these (and other) courses in DPAS, and many acknowledge at the end of the semester that they have learned more about the richness of the black experience than they even knew existed, and that they did not know it was possible to have such honest and in-depth discussions about race, particularly with people of different races. This is perhaps the most valuable experience for all involved. 

Our DPAS College Writing faculty members, all of whom are English Department staff, are committed to teaching African American students and others who want or need more individualized attention than they might otherwise receive in their College Writing classes. While all students are welcome, these courses are specifically tailored to the needs of African American students in that writing instruction can focus, when necessary, on bridging the gap between what we call Consensus English and Black English, and reading material and assignments focus on black literature and issues relevant to the African American community. These courses meet in Oscar Ritchie Hall, which provides a learning community environment that nurtures black students while helping others see and experience what is meant by community in a Pan-African context.  

CSAattempts to be as selective as possible in approving staff members, since the university's retention of and graduation rates for African American students depend in no small way on retaining instructional personnel who are skilled in and committed to the education of these students. The English Department interviews and subsequently hires all English faculty, but before any of these individuals become faculty in this division, they are interviewed by CSAfaculty and the director, who then make recommendations to the chairs of English and DPAS. DPAS provides instructional support and resources, as well as office space and telephones.  

There are currently five faculty members* who teach our College Writing courses.  Allhave at least MA degrees in English. The strength of the CSA program is evidenced in its continuing ability to attract students, and evaluations and classroom observations have been consistently high. A positive addition to our division is the Help Center, which is located in the DPAS Computer Lab and is manned by a CSA faculty member who spends many hours tutoring PAS students in writing. Indeed, all DPAS faculty rely on CSA to reinforce good reading, writing, listening and critical thinking skills, in addition to the imparting of knowledge.  

In addition to the objectives for these Tier I and II courses listed by the English Department's Writing Program Committee, the long-standing objectives of the DPAS College Writing Program include the following: 

  • to develop good reading and writing skills, as well as to encourage critical thinking in students
  • to help African American students enhance their self-reliance as learners and their cultural pride as human beings by focusing on readings and literature that validate and affirm the human experience of Pan-African peoples and by discussing and writing about issues that concern traditionally under-represented cultural groups in America
  • to help non-African American students gain a more accurate understanding and an appreciation of Pan-African peoples and culture
  • to encourage and inspire students to seek out-of-class reading, writing, speaking and listening activities, in order to gain competent linguistic skills
  • to help address the concerns and needs of African American students on a predominately white campus and, thus, to aid in the retention and persistence of these students
  • to maintain and strengthen the symbiotic relationship between DPAS College Writing courses and Black Experience I & II
  • and to help maintain DPAS' holistic approach to teaching and nurturing students by supporting and participating, along with students, in various programs and events sponsored by CPAC, IAAA and ACT.

CSA's College Writing Program falls under the umbrella of the English Department's Writing Program, and it must be acknowledged that there has been occasional tension between our desire to stay with tried and true aspects of our program and the direction the other College Writing courses are going. While we do notargue with the new focus on technology in the classroom as advocated by the English Department's Writing Program, or the new structure of those courses, or, indeed, the rhetorical theory supporting such changes, they simply are not the priorities set decades ago for the DPAS writing sections, which have helped countless students be successful in the academic environment and which are still supported by scholars in black pedagogy today.  

Adam J. Banks, for example, in Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground (Urbana, Illinois: NCTE Research Series in Literacy and Composition, 2006), advocates the use of technology in the classroom (and his book is full of advice and examples of how to do this effectively), but it is a use grounded in African American rhetorical traditions (2). Instructors in CSA writing sections, therefore, should be familiar with these traditions. Furthermore, because most of our black students (even those who attended predominantly black high schools) have not been exposed to very much specific knowledge about their own rhetorical traditions, it is imperative that CSA instructors not be required to take valuable time from this important mission in order to incorporate other materials into their classrooms. In addition, scholars like Banks and DPAS acknowledge that one of the best ways to teach specific knowledge about African American rhetorical traditions is through literature, and writing instructors should not be limited in their use of literature in the classroom.  

Thus, while we have incorporated technology into our classrooms and some aspects of multimodal writing, our primary focus remains teaching our students the conventions of Consensus English and academic writing, as well as knowledge about African American rhetorical traditions. After a series of meetings with the chairs of both DPAS and English, the CSA director and faculty, and the director of the English Department's Writing Program, our faculty members are now free to develop appropriate teaching strategies and to determine course content and texts. In the future, it would be to our faculty's advantage to split their contracts between the English Department and DPAS in order to permit members of DPAS, who have an understanding of black rhetorical traditions and pedagogy, to have input in performance reviews of these writing instructors. 

CSA has long tried to maintain a meaningful connection between the College Writing courses and Black Experience I & II by requiring students to be co-enrolled in these courses; the expectation is that the content of both courses would (without being identical) run parallel to and, thus, reinforce each other by helping students see real-world connections rather than isolated courses operating in an apparent vacuum. Unfortunately, such a relationship between these courses has never been wholly achieved, primarily because there are simply too few seats in the Black Experience courses to accommodate all the students who want to enroll in DPAS College Writing courses; consequently, it has been necessary to ignore the co-enrollment requirement in recent years. This is not to suggest that CSA has given up on what can be a profoundly effective approach to learning—a fact which becomes quite apparent during the summer when students admitted to the STARS Program, overseen by Shana Lee's Student Multicultural Center, are co-enrolled in DPAS College Writing and Black Experience courses. 

From the time of its creation, our Writing Program (and PAS in general) has had to contend with false perceptions, many based on racial stereotypes: sadly, many students, faculty and even advisors at this university assume that these English courses are for "slow learners" or that they have been "dumbed down." Consequently, the CSA director has met with advisors all over campus to dispel such ideas. While these meetings have been to a great extent successful, the problem—because it is a reflection of the larger society in which we live—is by no means eliminated. On the other hand, whether it be in spite of or because of such false perceptions, the DPAS College Writing classes are always full, and often non-African Americans constitute 50% or more of our students. Indeed, a concern in the last several years is that many new black students are not being made aware of the option to take their College Writing classes with us, and we are currently working on initiatives that will address this. In the future, we would like to see the number of writing sections assigned to DPAS be directly related to the number of underrepresented students admitted to the university every year, which would assure a space for each student in a DPAS writing class, should he or she choose to accept that option.  

It is also imperative that DPAS renew its recruitment efforts in area high schools, specifically those with significant African American populations, and there is much that CSA can do to help. Such efforts would include (but not be limited to) writing and sending out information about DPAS; visiting schools; visiting high school English classes to demonstrate what we teach; and making area teachers and guidance counselors aware of this department and its offerings. 

Other goals include the following:

  • creating workshops and courses that reinforce writing-across-the-curriculum goals
  • reviving Young Writers, an annual collection of good writing by PAS students
  • encouraging professional development support for staff
  • continuing to sponsor, attend and participate in faculty and student symposia, lectures, readings, etc., as well as other departmental activities.     

*Current English instructors are Denise Harrison, Linda Piccarillo-Smith, Mike Sanders, Shannon Christen-Syed and Chris McVay (who also teaches PAS language and literature classes as a PAS faculty member).

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